The US American photographer’s socio-documentary reportages focus on reality. Some time ago, however, she discovered her artistic vein, and is taking time to create The Secret Garden of Lily LaPalma, with the support of the Guggenheim Foundation. Within the framework of this creative, long-term project, Steber is realising everything she otherwise refrains from doing in her assignments; namely processing a subjective perception – also of herself – aside from reality. She spoke with us about how she cares for The Secret Garden of Lily LaPalma, about the fact that her Men With Flowers series is about more than just men with flowers, and about her experiences with the new M11, being one of the first people given the chance to try out.

You have worked in so many countries and you are renown for your documentary work.
By now I’ve worked in 71 countries, covering everything from war to fashion. But I have always focused on the humanitarian, cultural and social stories of the people and places I photographed. I do great research before starting a project, but then I go in like a baby knowing nothing, a blank page for people to write their own stories. I think this gets me closer to producing work that is authentic and hopefully more correct. That said, I’ve nearly been killed when covering conflict and places where there was a lot of unrest, and certainly I’ve seen and photographed far too many starving children — all these things are stored in our memories but also in our subconscious and they have an impact on us.

When and on what occasion did you decide to pursue an artistic way of expressing yourself?
In the last few years I felt like it was time to tell my own story, in a manner of speaking; but with images that referenced things without being obvious, and this can be done in more inventive ways through making artful images that allude to an idea, but not in an obvious way. So I began to make images that were spontaneous, or seeing something that reminded me of something that I wanted to visually comment upon. The Guggenheim Foundation rewarded my work with a very handsome and supportive grant, and I continue to work on The Secret Garden of Lily LaPalma. I regard this project as a life-long work.

What is The Secret Garden of Lily LaPalma about?
The Secret Garden is where I am free and wild. Here I am the maiden standing on the hilltop, the wind blowing through my hair, as I wait for the ships bearing treasures to roll in on the waves. I am the wild horse running across an open plain that extends without borders. I am the eagle flying, my wings spread full as I float high on the wind. This is where my animalistic, wildly creative spirit resides.

What does The Secret Garden of Lily LaPalma mean to you?
I think that we need to be fluid in the projects we take on and in the images we make. I am someone who likes to live and create in a broad brushstroke. The Secret Garden was almost as much of a surprise to me as anything. These photographs just started appearing… that is, the opportunities, the ideas, memory, experiences… they just sort of poured out of me, and I embraced them because I’m someone who likes to try many things and incorporate many ideas into my life. When people ask why, I say: why not?

Men With Flowers obviously seems to be a part of the Secret Garden project. What’s the idea behind it?
Growing up without a father, my scientist mother told me I could decide for myself what to think about men. I studied men as I grew up; from teachers to neighborhood boys, to the first boy who ever kissed me. I learned that some men are bad and some are good, and if we’re lucky we end up with a good one. Along came the MeToo movement when the darkest secrets about men’s behavior were exposed, and it seemed that all men were painted as bad. Men With Flowers is not just about photos of men holding flowers. This project celebrates the good men I know and love as friends and colleagues; to show appreciation for those who respect women and are fearless about showing their more gentle sides.

Did you immerse yourself in floriography, the language of flowers?
I do a little bit of studying about this, because I want the flowers to match the men; but quite often it’s also about how the flowers remind me of the men, or some aspect of the men I photograph.

You used the brand new Leica M11 for this project. What did you like about the camera?
As always, one of my favorite things about the Leica M cameras is that they are small but powerful. They feel very solid, and this M11 feels even more so. In general, Leica cameras give me more confidence. I think they make me a better photographer and, to be honest, people take me more seriously when I walk into any situation. I regard them as my partners. Lastly, the M11 is still the classic Leica rangefinder camera. It works just like its predecessors all the way back to the M6, which was a film camera; and I still have it! It’s the classic M camera with a totally modern and up-to-date mirrorless shutter. All new internal design with the classic feel of a Leica.
You can choose from a 60, 36, or 18 megapixel resolution for raw files as well as jpegs. That is 3 different resolutions which is so handy and a great thing if you are shooting fast and a lot. I also love that there is multi-field light metering while shooting in the rangefinder mode. The M11 also offers higher shutter speeds, up to 1/16000 because of a new electronic shutter. It also operates better in low light situations.

What did you like about the lenses?
For this project I used an Elmarit-M 28 f/2.8. ASPH., a Summicron-M 35 f/2 ASPH., a Summilux-M 50 f/1.4 ASPH. and a Summarit-M 90 f/2.4. The lenses are mine except for the Summarit-M 90, which is a beautiful lens. I love these lenses and use them regularly in my documentary work. I have to say they are beautiful lenses and small, which I really like because I can take all of them with me, and they really work so well in all kinds of light.

Where are you headed to next?
I continue to work on Men With Flowers and that will be ongoing as well as images for The Secret Garden of Lily LaPalma, which includes the Men With Flowers project. I have some workshops coming up in Los Angeles, California, and in Kenya, in New York City and in Mexico. I have started a new project about love and hate. I just finished a four-day assignment for The New York Times, on professional football players who suffer from brain damage in what’s called CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). It focuses on the family caregivers, and on what they went through with their fathers and husbands who died from this disease, caused by head trauma and concussions.

Born in Electra, Texas, Maggie Steber studied Photography at the University of Texas in Austin, in both the Journalism program and in the Art department. She was able to study with Russell Lee, who was a Farm Security Administration photographer during the American Depression. Steber has worked in Haiti for over three decades. Aperture published her monograph, Dancing on Fire: Photographs From Haiti (1992). Steber has exhibited internationally. Her clients include the National Geographic magazine, The New York Times Magazine, the Smithsonian Magazine, and Geo Magazine among others. Steber teaches workshops internationally, including at the World Press Joop Swart Master Classes, the International Center for Photography, Foundry Workshops and the Obscura Photo Festival. Find out more about her photography on her website and Instagram page.

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